Gypsy music—reinvented and irresistible.

Songs you've got to hear.
Sept. 1 2006 8:01 AM

Balkanization!

Gypsy music—old, new, and borrowed.

Gulag Orkestrar by Beirut

Beirut Gulag Orkestrar (Ba Da Bing, 2006)

Jody Rosen Jody Rosen

Jody Rosen is a Slate contributor.

The music of the Roma, or Gypsies, originated in ancient India and spread westward through the Middle East, North Africa, the Balkans, and across Europe, leaking into everything from Franz Liszt to French chanson to postwar jazz. Today, Gypsy music continues to mutate—and to migrate to some unlikely corners of the pop-music world. New York is home to an exciting Gypsy punk scene, led by the great party band Gogol Bordello. And now Gypsy sounds have surfaced in, of all places, Albuquerque, N.M., where Beirut recorded Gulag Orkestrar, one of this year's best debuts. Beirut is led by 20-year-old Zach Condon, a gifted singer and composer whose voice and majestically cresting minor-key melodies recall Rufus Wainwright's. (He's also a formidable one-man band: On Gulag Orkestrar he plays percussion, keyboards, accordion, ukulele, and a variety of horns and reed instruments.) Condon claims to have spent time wandering the former Soviet bloc, but he's not exactly an ethnomusicologist. In songs like the horn-crazy " Bratislava" and the lovely ballad "Prenzlauerberg," Condon is Balkanizing indie rock, hitching the usual sad-sack sentiments to Eastern European soundscapes: lurching accordions, blaring brass-band fanfares, and other romantic, dolorous sounds. It's an audacious bit of cultural banditry, sometimes in questionable taste (Gulag Orkestar? C'mon, now)—but the music works wonderfully. Here's hoping more sensitive young American songwriters start connecting with their Macedonian muses.

Kal by Kal

Kal Kal (Asphalt Tango, 2006)

Advertisement

Meanwhile, back in Eastern Europe, young bands are cross-pollinating indigenous music with Western pop. The Belgrade band Kal, led by brothers Dugan and Drasan Ristic, is one of the most voracious hybridizers, mixing rootsy "Balkan blues" with snatches of hip-hop, tango, bhangra, and, in one inspired instance, a keening Hawaiian steel guitar. Kal can be a touch too slick, and their taste in electronica is dodgy. (The techno beat in "Duj Duj" is pure cheese.) But when they play a frisky, acoustic drum 'n' bass tune or lean their fiddles and guitars into what can best be described as Gypsy ska, the results bring a wide smile. Kal's self-titled album topped the European world-music charts earlier this year; they will tour the United States for the first time this fall.

Sounds From a Bygone Age—Volume 2 by Romica Puceanu & the Gore Brothers

Romica Puceanu & the Gore Brothers Sounds From a Bygone Age—Volume 2 (Asphalt Tango, 2006)

The growing popularity of Gypsy music is bringing a flood of old records out of musty vaults and onto CD for the first time. One of the best recent reissues is this collection of recordings from the '60s and '70s by Romica Puceanu, an extraordinary Romanian Gypsy vocalist who sang cantece de mahala, the cafe songs of the Bucharest suburbs, which merged Turkish Gypsy rhythms with lovelorn Romany lyrics. The Gore Brothers' septet—featuring accordions, violins, and a Hungarian hammered dulcimer called the cimbalom—play with crispness and restraint, leaving abundant spaces to be filled by Puceanu's singing. She has a startling voice: clear, powerful in both upper and lower registers, with a tone that variously resembles a horn or a violin. Bucharest's cafe intellectuals called Puceanu "the Romanian Billie Holiday"; the warble in her voice may remind listeners of Edith Piaf. Like both those greats, Puceanu is a specialist in pathos, with an expressive flair characteristic of great Gypsy vocalists—you don't have to understand a single lyric to get caught up in her long, languid, sighing lines.

The Continuing Adventures of Taraf de Haidouks by Taraf de Haidouks

Taraf de Haidouks The Continuing Adventures of Taraf de Haidouks (Crammed Discs/Ryko, 2006)

Taraf de Haidouks, an intergenerational Gypsy ensemble from the village of Clejani, near Bucharest, are speed freaks. Their songs—medieval ballads about gallant criminals, saucy modern numbers about cheating lovers—whiz past in a rush of virtuosity, with fiddles sawing, fingers racing up fret boards, and pennywhistles twittering like crazed birds. Taraf de Haidouks have been stars of the world-music touring circuit since 1990; their latest release is a CD/DVD commemorating a typically raucous live 2002 concert at London's Union Chapel. The band plays horas, traditional Romanian Gypsy dance tunes, at such a comically breakneck pace that you're inclined at first to think there's something wrong with your CD. But as anyone who's ever heard Balkan brass bands knows, warp-speed tempos are a staple of Eastern European Gypsy music; parties are made for dancing, and the dances in this part of the world are very fast. Occasionally, Taraf de Haidouks slow down for odd-metered ballads, and their lustrous contrapuntal playing comes into clearer focus. But then the song ends, and—whoosh— they're off again.